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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 12th August 2005


Every now and then a new restaurant opens that becomes an overnight sensation. For a brief period, usually no longer than six months, it sits at the top of the tree. How it achieves this is always something of a mystery. Is it the food? The décor? The location? Some combination of all three? People can speculate until the cows come home, but the truth is no one really has a clue--and that usually includes the restaurant's owner. What William Goldman said about the movie business is equally true of the restaurant business, at least when it comes to manufacturing hits: nobody knows anything.

Automat in Dover Street is the current reigning champ. The brainchild of a New York-based bar-and-nightclub owner called Carlos Almada, it's modelled on a classic American diner. As you enter, you find yourself in a long, narrow, carriage-like corridor, much like an old-fashioned trolley car, complete with padded booths and brass light fittings. At the far end this opens out into Automat's main dining area, a cafeteria-like space over-looking a cactus-filled courtyard that's intended to conjure up a truckstop cafe in Arizona. The whole interior is beautifully done, almost as if Bill Gates had asked Frank Gehry to re-create his favourite childhood diner using the most expensive materials money can buy.

The menu echoes this theme, offering classic American dishes at very reasonable prices, particularly for this part of town. The appetizers include Manhattan clam chowder, crab cakes and something called an "Iceberg Wedge", while the entrees range from New York sirloin steak to "Macaroni & Cheese" (note the very American inclusion of an ampersand between those two ingredients).

I opted for chicken noodle soup, followed by an "Automat Burger"--several pounds of beef on a sesame bun accompanied by all the trimmings--while my wife had grilled Portobello mushroom salad and, for her main course, mac & cheese. I have to say, we were both faintly disappointed. It wasn't bad, it was just very ordinary--which was a shock given how much care and attention has been lavished on the interior. We were expecting to be treated to a souped-up version of this bog-standard American fare, whereas in fact it tasted exactly like the real McCoy. What's interesting about Automat is that the décor quotes the classic American diner experience instead of reproducing it, while the food is exactly what you'd get on Main Street in Little Rock, Arkansas. The concept is post-modern, but the cuisine is pre-historic.

Still, you don't come to the hottest restaurant in town for the food; it's the people watching that makes the three-month wait for a table worthwhile. In this respect, Automat doesn't disappoint. My wife and I were seated next to a very glamorous party that included Robert Hanson, a bevy of gorgeous models and--best of all--Rebecca De Mornay, the American movie star. Presumably, she was in town to promote Wedding Crashers, the Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughan comedy in which she plays a seductive older woman. De Mornay will always occupy a special place in my heart as the high class hooker who deflowers Tom Cruise in Risky Business, one of my favourite films of all time.

According to the front of house staff, Automat will soon encompass a bar, a nightclub and a private members club, a little like Sketch and Momo's which are just round the corner. If anyone can pull this off--and such an ambitious concept is always a gamble--Carlos Almada can. I first encountered him in New York eight years ago when he was running a "boarding house" for models and in the interim I've often spotted him cavorting with catwalk queens at various parties and shop openings. Back when I was living the life of a carefree bachelor in New York, he's exactly the kind of man I wanted to grow up to be. Now, it seems, he's grown up, too, and even though I'm just another nobody who doesn't know anything I'm willing to bet that Automat will become a permanent fixture in London's ever-changing nightlife scene.

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